‘Welcome back to Earth,‘ NASA astronauts splashdown in SpaceX Dragon capsule off Florida coast

Splashdown happened at 2:48 p.m. ET Sunday

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NASA astronauts Robert Behnken, left, and Douglas Hurley are seen inside the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour spacecraft onboard the SpaceX GO Navigator recovery ship shortly after having landed in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Pensacola, Fla., Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020. The Demo-2 test flight for NASA's Commercial Crew Program was the first to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station and return them safely to Earth onboard a commercially built and operated spacecraft. Behnken and Hurley returned after spending 64 days in space. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken successfully returned to Earth for the first splashdown in 45 years Sunday in their SpaceX Dragon Endeavour spacecraft.

The astronauts slept in the spacecraft overnight into Sunday after undocking from the International Space Station. NASA and SpaceX were targeting 2:48 p.m. ET for the splashdown near Pensacola. There are seven sea landing options, however, due to Tropical Storm Isaias barreling up Florida’s east coast the options on the west coast are a better bet.

The splashdown went as planned and landed into calm seas at 2:48 p.m.

“Welcome back to Earth and thanks for flying SpaceX,” mission control told the astronauts.

The milestone completed the SpaceX Demo-2 test mission for Dragon, the first test flight with astronauts to the International Space Station. Getting the astronauts to the ISS was important but bringing them home was even more so.

Behnken and Hurley arrived at the orbiting laboratory on May 31, after becoming the first to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The launch also marked the first human spaceflight from U.S. soil in nearly nine years.

As Dragon got closer to landing both astronauts were busy preparing for splashdown.

“Once we wake up, we will eat, fluid load, go through suit up, and then work our way into the entry portion of the flight and then the deorbit burn, then entry. So we’ll be fairly busy when we’re awake throughout the whole process,” Hurley said Friday. “Those last probably two and a half to three hours will be very busy as we get suited up, strapped into our seats and then we’ll be monitoring all the different systems of the vehicle, ensuring that it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing as we work our way back towards Florida.”

During their journey home the astronauts traveled at speeds up to 17,500 mph around Earth, then using a parachute system slowed the spacecraft from 350 mph to 15 mph as it gently splashdown down in the Gulf.

Here’s a timeline of the events prior to and after splashdown:

  • 1:51 p.m. – Crew Dragon performs claw separation. The claw is located on Crew Dragon’s trunk, connecting thermal control, power, and avionics system components located on the trunk to the capsule. Dragon will continue to Earth but the trunk will burn up. The trunk needs to separate to expose the spacecraft heat shield.

After the trunk separated Astronaut Doug Hurley told mission control, “Oh yeah, we felt it.”

  • 1:56 p.m. – Deorbit burn begins: Dragon fires forward bulkhead thrusters for about twelve minutes to lower the spacecraft’s orbit until it intersects with planet Earth. This burn is the longest of the return home at more than 11 minutes.
  • 2:08 p.m. – Deorbit burn complete.
  • 2:11 p.m. – Nosecone deploys: Dragon’s protective nosecone covers the forward bulkhead thrusters, docking ring and number of other sensors used for approach and rendezvous with the Space Station.
  • 2:32 p.m. – Crew Dragon maneuvers to attitude for re-entry: Dragon experiences significant heating and drag as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, which slows the velocity to the point of safe parachute deploy. There will also be a communication blackout for a short time at this point.

Right before the blackout began mission control said, “We will see you on the other side.”

  • 2:44 p.m. – The spacecraft’s Drogue parachutes deploy at about 18,000 feet in altitude while Crew Dragon is moving approximately 350 miles per hour, this will begin slowing down the spacecraft.
  • 2:45 p.m. – Main parachutes deploy at about 6,000 feet in altitude while Crew Dragon is moving approximately 119 miles per hour, continuing to slow the spacecraft down.
  • 2:48 p.m. – Dragon Endeavour splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico near Pensacola, Florida.

“Welcome back to Earth, thank you for flying SpaceX,” mission control said.

Behnken and Hurley remained inside Dragon while the recovery teams pull the capsule onto a ship. Once onboard the recovery ship, called Go Navigator, the spacecraft hatch will be opened and the pair will be helped out and welcomed home.

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SpaceX director of crew mission management Benji Reed said the astronauts will be retrieved by the SpaceX recovery crew, he referred to as “the SpaceX Navy.”

Reed said three boats go out to recover the capsule and astronauts, -- the main recovery vehicle and two fast boats-- between the vessels about 44 team members are on board comprising of both SpaceX and NASA staff, including medical teams.

The astronauts waited in the capsule for about an hour before the hatch was opened due to trace amounts of potentially hazardous fumes being detected around the spacecraft. SpaceX waited for those to dissipate before opening the hatch.

After they are safely collected, Hurley and Behnken will return to land in a helicopter where they will be reunited with their families as soon as Sunday evening.